Monday, October 25, 2010

The Politics-Fashion Connection

Because another election day is rolling around, I thought it might be interesting to explore another connection between politics and art. I’m not talking about the signs or “costumes” we see at tea party rallies, nor am I talking about political cartoons or grandiose history painting. You may never have considered it, but politics can influence fashion. The one major example that comes to mind for me is the period around the time of the American and French revolutions, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

While classical (i.e. ancient Greek and Roman) art was influential on western art and architecture from the time of the Renaissance (c1400-1600) on, it received fresh vigor during the eighteenth century. The discovery of the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 1748, and the subsequent aggressive excavation programs provided new material to inspire artists. Classical art began to have an impact on fashion in the mid- to late 1790s, inspired by the clothing seen on women in ancient Greek vase paintings.

Adapting a narrower silhouette for women’s attire and simplified hairstyles (based too on the ancient world) was in part a reaction to the ridiculous extremes of the preceding two decades. That was the period epitomized by Marie Antoinette and the ridiculous side hoops, impossibly corseted diaphragm, and hairdos that were piled up so high they often needed to be on a collapsible wire cage in order to get through doorways. In comparison to the fashions of the 1770s and 1780s, some critics of the new fashion accused women of being scantily clad. Whatever the opinion about the fashion, the rising waistline and simplified hair styles amounted to an emancipation of women from the artifice of the previous period.

After the success of the American Revolution (1776-1783) and French Revolution (1789-1799), designers in France (already then considered the fashion capital of the West) consciously borrowed elements from classical antiquity for women’s fashions. Of course the French experiment in democracy ended when Napoleon became emperor (1805), however, French fashions persisted in the neoclassical style.

The style was eagerly adapted throughout Western Europe and, especially, in America. Americans viewed their new country as the first true democracy since antiquity, so even classically inspired fashion was seen as appropriate. Because the style flourished during Napoleon’s reign, it is often called the Empire Style. This beautiful, simple, and elegant dress is from Philadelphia, the most influential city in the early American republic. The Empire Style was loosely based on the ancient Greek chiton, essentially a rectangle of material that was pinned or belted at the waist and buttoned at the shoulder. (see the caryatid from the Erechtheum in Athens). The high waist and narrow silhouette persisted in women’s clothing into the 1820s, although the train disappeared around 1810.

Correlations to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art 1: 5.30; Explorations in Art 2: 6.35; Explorations in Art 3: 6.31; Explorations in Art 5: 2.10; A Personal Journey: 3, A Community Connection: 3.1; A Global Pursuit: 6.1; The Visual Experience: 3.3, 12.4, 16.3; Discovering Art History 12.1

Monday, October 18, 2010

An African Photographer

In looking at the history of art, I always try to appreciate art that is under-appreciated. Photography has been accepted as an art form since the early 20th century, although is it rarely studied outside of Western Europe or America in western art history. But, let’s think of art forms, long under-accepted in the West, in Africa. We tend to think of masks, textiles, and ancestor figures when “African Art” is brought up. The photographer Seydou Keïta is a brilliant example of the richness of African art in the post-colonial period. His native Mali achieved independence from the French in 1960. Keïta’s portraits document Mali’s transition from a cosmopolitan French colony to an independent country. Keïta’s art also shows how art enhances the dignity of every human being.

By the turn of the twentieth century, photography was well on its way to being considered a form of “fine art.” Photography served as an important tool in the 1950s and 1960s for documenting performance art, installations, and happenings. Some photographers chose to continue to document society and the rapid changes happening to it. The 1955 “Family of Man” exhibition (curated by Edward Steichen) of photographs emphasized birth, love, and joy, and also touches of war, privation, illness, and death. His intention was to prove visually the universality of human experience and photography's role in its documentation. The exhibition proved that one of the most important impacts of photography on society was its ability to document the state of humankind.

Seydou Keïta eloquently portrayed society of the Mali capital Bamako during a period of transition from a “colony” to the modern African nation. Initially trained as a carpenter, Keïta began pursuing photography after his uncle gave him a Kodak Brownie camera in 1935. He mastered the art of composing printing and subsequently bought a large format camera. In 1948 he opened his own studio in Bamako and quickly built up a successful business of portraiture. His subject matter became primarily portraiture of the burgeoning middle-class and successful business class of the increasingly affluent Mali society. He balanced a strict sense of formality with an intimacy evinced by the props and backdrops (most often native textiles) he had available in his studio. The radio is seen in several portraits of different persons.

After a period of photographing for the Mali government, Keïta retired in 1977. The discovery of his work in the 1980s by French gallery owners led to world-wide recognition in the 1990s. His first exhibit in the US was 1991. His work represents the founding stage of African modernization as experienced in a lively, thriving city (Bamako). By the 1990s he had an archive of over 10,000 negatives. His emphasis on light, subject and framing establishes Keïta among the masters of the 20th century genre of photography.

Correlations to Davis Programs: Focus on Photography, The Visual Experience: 9.5, SchoolArts Magazine Looking & Learning: October 2010 (Commemoration), January 2011 (Place), February 2011 (Time)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Pioneer Woman Architect

Being a minimally successful artist (commercially), I always admire artists who succeed in their art when the cards are stacked against them. Yes, I’m talking about women artists again. In the West, women have always participated in society as professional artists, but, up until the late nineteenth century, it was not easy for them. This was due primarily to the fact that, in a male-dominated culture, being an artist was considered “unsuitable” for women. This was especially true about architecture. If it was hard for women to enroll in art academies in the nineteenth century, it was even more difficult to study engineering in order to become an architect. Julia Morgan, however, became the first woman to enroll in the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in order to study to become an architect.

Julia Morgan was born in San Francisco and grew up in Oakland. In 1890 Morgan enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, an overwhelmingly male school. She eventually decided on a career in architecture and received a degree in civil engineering in 1894. While studying at Berkeley she attracted the attention of the famous architect Bernard Maybeck (1862-1957), who hired her to work in his studio. Maybeck suggested that Morgan study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the most prestigious architecture school in the world at the time.

At the École des Beaux-Arts, Morgan’s primary training was in historicist (revival) styles. After graduating in 1902, she opened an office in San Francisco. During a period when many architects experimented with modernism, Morgan’s designs tended to be conservative and respectful of her clients’ tastes. She had a large network of women friends from her college days at Berkeley, which helped her obtain many commissions for a variety of buildings.

Morgan designed in a number of revival styles during her career. The majority were built in the then-fashionable Spanish Colonial Revival style. Striking features of the Chapel of the Chimes are the stonework grilles on the arched windows and beautifully carved surround of the entrance. Red-tiled roof, whitewashed walls, arcaded cornices, ironwork, and low-relief carvings completed the style. During her career, Morgan designed nearly 700 buildings, including work on the Hearst Mansion and the rebuilding of the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco after the great earthquake and fire of 1906.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art 1: 1.1, 2.12; Explorations in Art 2: 6.31; Explorations in Art 3: 4.20, 4.21; Explorations in Art 4: 3.18; Explorations in Art 5: 2.11; A Personal Journey: 8.1; A Global Pursuit F2.2; A Community Connection F2.2; The Visual Experience 11.4; Discovering Art History 16.1; SchoolArts Magazine, Looking and Learning: Place (April)

Monday, October 4, 2010

Importance of Portraits Bonus: A Prince of a Portrait

Of all the portraits I’ve ever come across – and believe me, I’ve been going to museums since I was a wee one – the portraiture of ancient Egypt fascinates me the most. For one thing, Egyptian artists depicted people of every station in life, from pharaohs to common people grinding grain. Egyptian portraits provide an awesome glimpse into the sacred, the believed-to-be-sacred, and the everyday, and provide a unique document of a society thousands of years old. I especially like this portrait of Prince Ankhhaf, because it digresses from the rigid canons of Egyptian art that were established early in the Old Kingdom (c2650-2323 BCE). When you look at this guy’s face, you see a real person with personality!

The cultures of the ancient Near East and Egypt were among the first to produce true portraits. In Egypt, portraiture, like most other art form genres, primarily served funerary purposes. Because the Egyptians believed they would be reborn essentially unchanged into the afterlife, portrait sculptures were important objects in the contents of a tomb. Busts such as this, which was housed within a chapel in Ankhhaf’s tomb, are called “reserve figures.” They were intended to house the ka (life essence or soul) in case the deceased’s body was damaged in any way before ascending to the other world.

Royal portraiture of the time followed strict conventions and was rarely true portraiture. These conventions were based on a canon of proportions that accorded with the Egyptian concept of the ideal human form. Physical imperfections were ignored, in other words, the figures were idealized. These conventions were often disregarded in portraiture of lesser nobles or commoners. This is certainly the case with Ankhhaf. His features are those of a mature, aged man, with bags under the eyes, furrows around his mouth, and a receding hairline. It is indeed a sensitive portrayal of a successful prince. Compare this realism with the royal portrait of Menkaure, successor of Ankhhaf’s nephew Khafre.

Ankhhaf was the son of pharaoh Sneferu (2575-2551 BCE), half-brother of Khufu (2551-2528 BCE) (builder of one of the great pyramids), and uncle to Khafre (2520-2494). Ankhhaf oversaw the building of Khafre’s pyramid and the Great Sphinx. This portrait was probably produced at the time he served Khafre. Over time it lost the ears, a small beard, and probably two arms that rested on the low pedestal on which it was placed. It faced the entrance to the chapel as if ready to greet otherworldly visitors. Ankhhaf’s mastaba (tomb), G7510, is the largest in the great eastern cemetery at Giza.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 2.8, Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.8, Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.2, Explorations in Art Grade 4: 2.7, Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.1, A Personal Journey: 6.1, A Global Pursuit: 1.1, The Visual Experience: 15.3, Discovering Art History: 5.3, SchoolArts Magazine Looking & Learning: October 2010 - Commemoration